A Conversation with Sudanese Blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr
Listen to the full interview here:
Amir Ahmad Nasr is the author of the recently published autobiography: My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind-and Doubt Freed My Soul. He was one of the first Sudanese bloggers to blog in English and the most famous. The book started as a six-year-old journey of anonymous blogging to unearth difficult questions about Islam, Identity, the politics of the Middle East region and much more. It has a lot of references to online activism and communities of interest, in the Arab and Islamic blogosphere. It’s probably one of the best Sudanese documentations about the impact of blogging and how it can move to collective and concrete action–albeit in a more global and regional sense– especially in closed and undemocratic societies. In Sudan we are yet to capitalize on the power of blogging like other countries with more substantial blogospheres.
In this interview with Amir, he explains what led him to blog, why he blogged for six years and what impact that had on his life.
(This interview was edited for brevity and redundancy.)
Sawtna.net: In your book, “My Isl@am” you observed in 2006 that “a Sudanese blogsphere made of Sudanese bloggers speaking about Sudanese issues, was nowhere to be found”. This absence of a Sudanese blogsphere a few years ago was obviously a motivator to you. Can you tell us when and why you started blogging?
Amir: I started blogging in April 2006. By complete accident I discovered this website called, The Big Pharaoh. After exploring it, I noticed it didn’t look like a typical website. When I looked at it and I read, I realized it was something called “a blog”.
In a blog you have different posts, in sequence; from the older to the newest post. And the newest post tends to be on the top, and blog posts are arranged sequentially. Then there’s a comment section where people can write their thoughts and respond to you directly as a blogger. I was fascinated and blown away by the format; and how The Big Pharaoh was using it to write about all sorts of controversial issues in Egypt. He was a secular and very liberal guy, and he was talking about sex, God, politics, women’s rights, Islam and atheism. Things that were really provocative, and that people wouldn’t dare talk about openly.
I was intrigued because I had a lot of questions growing up that I was too scared to confront and to answer. Questions about the nature of religion and the nature of God. About the Quran and whether it is really the word of God. And “The Big Pharaoh” was tackling these questions openly, so I became obsessed. In his blogs he linked to other blogs, including Iraqi blogs and Palestinian blogs, Saudi and Algerian. They were all talking about the different issues that they confronted in their countries. The Iraqi blogosphere during the American-led invasion of Iraq was very active and the conversation was very heated.
Darfur was a horrendous tragedy in 2006-2007; and I asked myself, “Egyptians are talking about Egyptian issues and others are talking about their issues. Where are the Sudanese bloggers?” There were other [English-language] blogs, but they were also authored by non-Sudanese. So I asked “Big Pharaoh”, and he told me, “as far as I know I’ve never come across a Sudanese blog in English, by a Sudanese. Why don’t you be the first one?”
My reaction was: I don’t have much to say, I wasn’t an expert on politics, I didn’t have much knowledge. His response to me was: “tell stories”. So I began writing about Darfur and educating myself, and through this process I learned a lot.
Sawtna.net: In your view how has the Sudanese blogosphere evolved since then?
Amir: In April 2006 there was no Sudanese blogosphere. I went to online forums like “Shamarat” and “Sudan.net”, and I tried to get people who were posting actively in those forums to blog. I told them that writing in these forums limits them to the Sudanese audience that visits the forums, but when it comes to the rest of the world no one is seeing what they have to say. Blogging is a more powerful medium. When you blog, you have complete control to say whatever you want. There is no administrator who can kick you out, ban you or delete your stuff. You have sovereignty on that medium and it’s open to the world; and people can engage with you. I succeeded to recruit a few who in turn recruited others. And we began having a small active Sudanese blogosphere.
Between 2006 to 2009, I was the only one blogging very actively. Many of the others had to stop blogging and became inactive. I will definitely give credit to Reem, who had a blog with a tagline, ” I have no tribe, I’m Sudanese”, and her blog remained to be active, along with a few others.
The biggest challenge was that many people were not active. Thankfully that changed, as more people joined more blogs started and I became less active by 2011. But unlike before, when we had a Sudanese blogosphere, the bloggers were not interacting together and networking, engaging and discussing, because now the conversation shifted to twitter and facebook.
In a sense that was a positive development, because the good thing about facebook is that you don’t need to build an audience. Sudanese bloggers abandoned blogging because when you blog, you don’t just blog, you have to market your post and you have to engage others to read what you have to say. And if no one is reading what you’re writing, then you lose motivation. While on facebook, your friends and their friends are the audience.
Unfortunately, on Facebook and even more on twitter, you are not able to discuss much when you have 140 characters. It’s not the same as writing a coherent, well thought article that’s 1000 words long. You just write a short post on your [Facebook] status update that is 200-300 words, and people like it and comment that is it. But are we really having a deep, important, intellectual conversation? The blogosphere was excellent for that because you’d write long arguments, and elaborate on your point.
I was lucky to build an audience that was active, and who read my writings even when it was a long post. There are pros and cons. Right now there are more Sudanese bloggers, but they are not as tightly knit. The conversation isn’t really happening amongst them. They are not discussing things together, they are not having a good debate. The conversation is on Facebook. And it’s in the form of short comments. Which is not a bad thing, but again it does not allow you to discuss a topic in depth.
Sawtna.net: You describe your relationship with blogging as, “ A quest to learn and unlearn. To blog and to grow.” How did this journey of learning and unlearning go? What were the ups and downs? What were the highlights?
Amir: The positive thing that comes with “unlearning” is that unlearning involves questioning and rejecting what doesn’t make sense. I think unlearning is a lot more important than learning. Because if you learn, and what you already know or what you think you know is flawed, then what you learn is going to be built on top of a foundation that is messed up, tainted, toxic and full of lies. The upside to that is that you get to discard a lot of nonsense, lies, propaganda, dogma, and indoctrination; and that is extremely liberating. It makes you a more enlightened person.
The downside is that this is a painful and messy process sometimes. Especially when you are unlearning, questioning and rejecting things that are considered taboo. I happily and openly state on this interview right now that I consider-myself mostly a non-believing Muslim. Meaning I don’t believe dogmatically in the doctrines that we’re supposed to believe in. That comes as part of the questioning, the unlearning and the rejection of the things that don’t make sense. I have my own spiritual practice. I consider myself a Sufi-Oriented Muslim. It’s a spirituality of mine, and it’s a cultural identity.
Sawtna.net: When describing the Arab blogsphere you say in the book, that, “an intellectual revolution was happening in the Arab blogsphere”, and that “Arab dissidents and political “heretics” of all stripes were discovering one another online and slowly forming a massive self-organized network.” Can you elaborate on how those online interactions were transforming into concrete networks in real life offline?
Amir: With blogging what happens is that you begin to realize, “I’m not the only one with radical ideas. I’m not the only one asking these questions”. When you realize that there are many people all over the world who have similar backgrounds like you, and who have been asking these questions; and have been in pain and they have struggled, you feel a sense of kinship with these individuals. So you begin to email each other, and to network and have skype conversations and chats. You begin to bond.
In many cases the bonding happens over anonymous e-mail addresses – you want to be anonymous because you don’t trust the other person. But after a while you realize that you can trust this person. Then you reveal your real name, people find out who you are, then you become friends in real life. You then form a network, and organizations step in because they want to facilitate the discussion in real life. They create conferences where they invite you and the bloggers so that the conversation that happens online is taken offline. You meet people for the first time face-to-face, but you feel like you’ve known each other forever. There’s a real sense of comradery.
There’s a gathering that I wrote about in my book. It was a gathering in Beirut in 2009, the second Arab Bloggers summit, and it was amazing. That network was crucial during the Arab uprisings, because there was already a lot of trust among the people. Can a similar scenario unfold now? Unfortunately I don’t think it would be that easy because these networks are powerful and in some cases have been infiltrated. Even with the events that happen now, governments are aware of the power of digital media and digital activism. So it is not as easy to trust new names and new faces that are parts of these movements. Even in my own personal life, my trust ring remains with people that I have known from the old days.
The beauty of anonymous blogging is that you blog anonymously and you’re afraid, then you develop a sense of conviction, then you realize that you don’t like being anonymous anymore.
Sawtna.net: Finally, you blogged anonymously for six years. Why did you choose to do that? Can you speak about the virtues of anonymous blogging and what it can offer bloggers in non-democratic settings or where freedom of expression is under attack?
Amir: There has been a big debate over the past years about anonymity. Google, for example, has a policy where it wants you to use your real name. Facebook demands that you use your real name. Some people have been fighting that, saying they should make exceptions for people who live under regimes that are oppressive. I absolutely support that. My friend Jillian York, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, she has been pushing for that.
I believe in the virtue of anonymous blogging. Anonymous blogging can be abused, for sure. You can slander people, you can insult them, you can defame them, and that’s bad. But the negative side does not outweigh the positives of anonymous blogging, because when you’re anonymous you’re able to write provocatively, honestly, frankly, and in a blunt and straightforward manner about topics that need to be robustly discussed. In many countries around the world one cannot do that with their real name.
In my case I said what I said anonymously because I was afraid of the repercussions. The beauty of anonymous blogging is that (and I’ve seen people go through this transformation) you blog anonymously and you’re afraid, then you develop a sense of conviction, then you realize that you don’t like being anonymous anymore. Which is why I made that conscious decision to reveal my identity during the Arab uprisings in 2011. I had friends in Tahrir square in Egypt, and friends who went to Libya who risked their lives, and I am going to worry about anonymity?
Was [revealing my identity] a beautiful event that had no consequences? No, because after I revealed my identity I got into certain issues, and I had challenges. I will not elaborate on what they are, but it came at a cost. Was it worth it? I still say; absolutely! But it does not mean that I am discarding the virtues of anonymous blogging. It is here to stay and it is absolutely important, and I think Facebook and Google should seriously reconsider their position on this matter.